Last thoughts on the Trek to Alaska

It was a great trip by any standards. Joe and I covered about 5,500 miles over the 16 days we were away, counting the 3 days in Anchorage awaiting our flight. I am so grateful to Pauline for the opportunity and to Joe for being such an easy companion to travel with.

A few left-over impressions:

It would be selfish, perhaps, but really convenient if the US would get on the metric system or have everyone else revert back to ours. As a loyal American, I have to mentally convert everything from metric to "standard" measures. KM to Miles is pretty easy but I always have to pull out the calculator to convert the temperature to °F. Yeah, I know that 20°C equals 68°F, but somehow that knowledge doesn’t help.

Why does AAA insist on using kilometers on maps of Canada that will be used by members driving US cars with speedometers and odometers calibrated in miles? Especially absurd, they give the provincial distances in KM right up to the AK border and then change to miles on the same road on the same map. WTF? So if it’s 356km to the border and 72m from there to the next motel, you have to do the math as you drive.

The stereotype is largely true, Canadians are the nicest people imaginable. Out of all the folks we interacted with for two weeks, I can’t remember meeting a single rude or impatient person. Whenever we needed help or information, the first person we asked would do everything he could, whether he had the info or not. I’m sure they have their neo-nazis and ax-murderers, but Canadians are just generally nice people.

But they cannot cook. I know that no one goes to Canada for the cuisine, that we were always eating in affordable (i.e. cheap ass) roadside restaurants, and that the big cities are chock full of fine dining. Our experience, limited to an admittedly poor sample set, is that Boston Pizza is the best restaurant in Canada.

Related: You can get "gravy" on any dish you order in Canada. And the poutine! Pile on the mozzarella curds! Eech.

We paid about $4.50-$5.00 US per gallon for most of the gas we bought in Canada. Math note: with the $CAD and the $US practically at par, you can just multiply the pump price (in $CAD/Liter) times 3.79 for a close approximation to $/Gal.

If we retook this trip, for purely financial reasons, I would strongly consider driving across the US to the Dakotas before turning north to save $1.00-$1.50 per gallon. We wound up spending $975.00 (USD) for gas, all together, and never had a problem finding gas or lodging. The roads were generally very good. Everything was paved. Even the few miles of loose gravel awaiting repaving was well marked and pretty smooth, if dusty.

Ontario is endless. We drove and drove and drove across it, just above the lakes, for four days at 70 MPH, (which I believe is equal to about 24°C). Very nice though, and Bobby Orr used to live up there.

Northern Ontario reminded us of parts of NH or VT, more than anything. Lots of lakes and rolling hills and a pleasant, touristy small town every 10 miles or so.

The longest straight road I have ever been on is a part of the Yellowhead Trail in SK or MB. The entire Trail runs from the MB border west to the Pacific coast in BC, and we were told that it offers the best route west with the least traffic and congestion, avoiding the boredom and overwhelming flat blankness of the prairie farther south along the Trans-Canada.

Well, it’s still pretty flat, with a little hill here and there and at one point the road stretched to the horizon, straight as an arrow, as far as we could see. Then we would reach the hill on the horizon and the road continued like an arrow to the next. For 50-75 miles, by my estimation, you could have tied the wheel off and napped.

The roads everywhere were surprisingly empty, even in the tourist areas and the outskirts of the cities. Except for Toronto, we saw nothing like Mass Pike traffic. They are either having a lousy tourist season or are blessed with limited traffic. The fact that it’s a several day drive from Toronto to many of these places doesn’t help, I’m sure.

Also surprised at the number of Amish out on the Canadian plains. We saw buggies on the highway and several signs to visit Amish and Mennonite tourist attractions.

The seemingly endless yellow fields of flowering canola plants in MB, SK and AB gave the landscape a distinct "Wizard of Oz" feel.

MB and SK are in the Central Time Zone. AB is in the Mountain Time Zone. Because they don’t approve of daylight savings time, SK is the same time as MB half the year, the other half the same as AB. But I guess when the sun goes down at 10 pm and rises at 3 am, DST can be a hard sell.

Me: "Wow. How do you keep that straight?" SK farmer: "I look at my watch."

All of Russell MB is abuzz about the new Asessippi Ski Area outside town. The brochure advertises a vertical drop of 500 feet (!) with two carpet lifts, two handle tows, two triple chairs and a quad chair to service 25 slopes. We were told that they had to build a big mound of dirt atop the existing "mountain" to get to the minimum vertical needed to hold junior races.

We saw loads of motorcycles on the road in AB, BC and AK. Young folks in brightly colored body suits on speedy looking Euro-bikes are slightly outnumbered by baby boomers on giant Harleys and Japanese retro-cruisers pulling little trailers. Everyone is wearing gear allowing them to plow ahead no matter how wet, windy and miserable the weather might be. Evidently ass-less leather chaps are not just a social signal but also an acceptable motorcycle accessory (or we were just totally misreading those two guys in the lobby).

We also encountered lots of bicycles, usually loaded down with camping gear. We probably saw well over a hundred riders, some solo but most in twos and threes, as they labored up the often gentle but always painfully long climbs. An embarrassingly large percentage seemed to be in our age cohort. And they weren’t the kind of skinny, muscular outliers you can dismiss as freaks, either. Most often, they looked just like Nana and Grampy out for a ride…in the rain…in the mountains…each with 75 lbs of camping gear. Admirable, to say the least.

We also once saw a group of what looked like a mother and about six kids on bikes of various sizes tooling along the roadside about 50 miles from the nearest town. How did those kids climb all those long hills on bikes with 20" wheels? We drove on.

Most every hotel and restaurant in northern AB, BC or the Yukon is filled with oilmen of one sort or another. Canada largely missed out on the recession due to the booming extraction industries here. We saw pumping stations and other evidence of multiple underground pipelines.

We joked about the beds and linens in some of the places we stayed but I would never, ever recommend that you do a "black light test" on an economy motel room. If we had such a test lamp, I have no doubt we would have bought a tent and some sleeping bags before we got halfway across Ontario. Just an impression, but I do believe that some things are better left unknown.

Never stay in a motel with a For Sale sign out front. They probably have cheapened up on the maintenance and the amenities and your view down the hallway will look like this.

But of course, the most important consideration on a trip like this is your choice of companion. I am fortunate that I have at least a couple of very compatible friends with whom I would have been happy to split the driving. Joe was a prince the whole way, putting up with me, diving more than his share, and pretty much not sweating any of the small stuff at all. If he would just work on the snoring, I would drive around the world with him.

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2 Responses to Last thoughts on the Trek to Alaska

  1. Pete says:

    Thanks for allowing me to “ride” along with you on your adventure.

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